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The Prospects of Public Reason

The public reason project (PRP) recommends that basic public matters should be decided by public reasons alone, so that citizens’ plural non-public or private reasons will not endanger the unity of the society’s public reason, which is responsible for the stability of the basic structure of society. PRP (1) employs the strategy of insulation (of public reason from the potential infection of private reasons) and (2) accords priority to public reasons over private reasons. This much is normative or prescriptive, but for PRP to be a tenable and genuinely authoritative normative scheme, it should also incorporate reliable means to win citizens’ firm allegiance to its mandates, which forms the 3rd major strategy of PRP. While much effort has been devoted to investigating (the justifiability of) the first two strategies of PRP, the third is relatively neglected. But this should not be the case, as the third strategy is also a constitutive part of PRP and it has profound implications for the other two strategies. This dissertation thus sets out to make up on this, by taking John Rawls’s particular approach to PRP as an example, which exhibits the most complete picture of PRP. I ask, in a nutshell, how are PRP’s prospects? More specifically, I scrutinize the attainability of the ideal of public reason, in which citizens heartily uphold or even endorse the spirit of public reason, just as depicted in Rawls’s ideal of well-ordered pluralistic society.

To reliably (although not very precisely) measure the prospects/feasibility of a certain ideal, some rigorous metric is indispensable. For this we can, very intuitively, measure the all-purpose resources for bringing about the ideal: based on comparison between the amount of resources available (or will be available) and the amount required/expected by the ideal, we can decide if the ideal is attainable or not. Few philosophers have thought about the prospects of their moral/social/political ideals along this line. Fortunately, Rawls provides a well-defined interface between ideal and reality in his approach to PRP, so we can still carry out the comparison. This interface is the conception of a well-ordered society, which consists primarily of the conception of the person/citizen as rational and reasonable and the conception of the society as the framework of social cooperation. As these conceptions contain elements informed both by the ideal and by reality, their inner coherence provides crucial clue for deciding the prospects of the ideal as a whole.

The major part of this dissertation is devoted to the investigation of these two conceptions, respectively in the domestic and the global settings. The focus is on whether reality can meet the requirements laid down by the ideal of public reason. Specifically, with regard to the conception of the person/citizen, I examine whether a citizen can develop firm allegiance to public reason either by living a well-ordered society (upbringing) or by deliberating on the congruence between her private reasons and the society’s public reason (bending hearts). With regard to the conception of the society, I examine whether the ethos of reciprocity (required by PRP) can be elicited and sustained by citizens’ viewing themselves as civic friends with each other and by recognizing the great value of actively participating in social/public life with others. After extending PRP into the global setting (global public reason, GPR for short) a similar investigation is carried out, focusing on the conception of the people and that of the Society of Peoples. With regard to the conception of the people, I examine whether a liberal people can develop and maintain a moral disposition that effectively uphold GPR and whether a non-liberal but decent people can be attracted to the liberal way. With regard to the conception of the Society of Peoples, I examine whether the ethos of reciprocity (required by GPR) can be elicited and sustained by peoples’ mutual affinity and, relatedly, whether the thesis of democratic peace can be sustained within the global circumstances of justice. On all these fronts, the prospects of the ideal are severely undermined by the weakness in our moral capacity as well as by the deep connection between public reason and private reasons. As a result, the prospects of public reason are much less secure than commonly assumed.

Date:14 Oct 2010 →  23 Feb 2017
Keywords:public reason, pluralism, Rawls
Project type:PhD project